When Sam Coco of Richland Township plays with his band Hard Rok, KoKo and Joe, he always tells the audience that the band members are not as short in person as they are in the nostalgic Christmas cartoon about three elves that airs every year on WJAC-TV.
He has played with the band for 12 years, and said the music is a mix of country, rock, folk and Jimmy Buffett good-time tunes.
“I play guitar and bass and do vocals,” Coco said. “We play festivals and private parties. We have the Forest Hills and New Germany festivals coming up.”
The band’s elf-inspired name came about through a series of identity changes.
Coco originally formed a band as a school project and called it Big Sky Mountain.
It then became Sunday Afternoon, which Coco said was confusing when they played Saturday nights.
The change to Hard Rok, KoKo and Joe came in the middle of a set.
“Someone said we should change our name,” Coco said. “My name was Coco, we had a Joe at the time and the other guy liked rock music. We spelled it differently (from the cartoon) in case there was a copyright.”
Before Hard Rok, KoKo and Joe, Coco was the drummer for Satrycon, a club and wedding band, for 28 years.
He also performs solo, playing his own compositions for the Tuesday Recital Series at First Lutheran Church in downtown Johnstown.
Coco also joined Songworks, where he can work on his music writing skills.
“I’ve written music over the years, mostly instrumental,” he said. “This group is supportive, and being a member forces me to write. I want to write popular music. It used to take me six months to a year for one song. I write faster with Songworks. They’re story songs.”
For his first appearance at First Lutheran, Coco performed music with a beach theme ala Jimmy Buffett, but his second concert this spring was all original compositions.
“Nine for Nine” chronicles the events of the Quecreek Mine rescue, while “Flight to the Coast” is his reaction to the attack on the World Trade Center and the heroism of those who went down with United Airlines Flight 93 near Shanksville.
“I was teaching a class of seventh-graders in general music at Forest Hills when the art teacher came into my room and said to turn on the TV,” Coco said. “The World Trade Center had been hit by a jet airliner. What first seemed like a tragic accident grew very quickly into the horror that was that day. This song was a way for me to honor those who died in Shanksville as well as a healing process for my soul.”
Other songs such as “A Quesadilla and a Case a Day” and “Sand Between Your Toes” are more light-hearted beach tunes.
Through Songworks, a community of regional songwriters, Coco composed “The Love That’s Always There” for his wife, Kathy, this Valentine’s Day.
“We started dating when we were 15 and are celebrating our 63rd birthdays and our 39th wedding anniversary this year,” Coco said. “She’s been supportive. We know what the other is thinking and finish each other’s sentences.”
Coco had two stints performing with Johnstown Symphony Orchestra, the first on string bass beginning in 1967, and the second in the percussion section.
He also conducted the youth symphony.
“I was with the symphony until they switched to Saturday concerts,” Coco said. “I was playing with Satrycon Saturday nights.”
Coco studied music education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and taught and conducted choral music for more than 34 years in the Forest Hills School District.
He was chorus director for middle school and high school choruses, taught general music and taught humanities at the high school. He also coached the golf and hockey teams.
When Coco retired seven years ago, he knew he would have things to do.
“I didn’t want my life defined by my work,” Coco said. “I wanted my work to define my life.”
Coco is into his seventh season as conductor of the Johnstown Symphony Chorus.
“I was just about finished with teaching when Maestro (Istvan Jaray) offered me the job, and I agreed,” Coco said. “I have a great working relationship with him.”
He said the chorus has responded well to what he has done and membership has come a long way, now numbering 75.
“Music has always been a major part of my life,” Coco said. “My parents were supportive. I had a band, The Sandells, before I could drive, and my dad was our manager and bought us a van. My parents came to every concert I performed in or conducted.”
When not writing or playing music, Coco plays golf in the summer, goes skiing in the winter and plays hockey in a recreational league.
The Coco family is completed by Max, a chocolate cocker spaniel.
Ruth Rice covers Features for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at RuthRice@RuthRiceTD.